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Saturday, August 16, 2008

20 Questions

For all the coverage given to Barack Obama and John McCain this year – and it has been incessant -- isn’t it astounding how little we’ve gleaned about how they would actually sail the ship of state? Amid all the smears and smear defenses, wedge issues, gotcha politics, fake outrage, infighting, and hero worship, it’s rare a candidate actually will be called on to answer a question of substance. But even when they are, there is little gained. We go round and round and round on about 5”big name” issues. Seriously, other than Iraq & Afghanistan, “the economy,” health care, and energy policy, can any of you describe their what the candidates are planning?

What’s particularly frustrating – though not surprising -- is the lack of attention to systemic problems. There are a lot of people, apparently, who think the country has been going in the wrong direction and want “a change”. But, they seem to assume that the way to change our direction is to elect a new personality to the oval office.

Unfortunately there are enormous obstacles to any kind of change in government, and our current president has done so much damage to the entire enterprise of American style representative government that the first order of business has to be undoing the damage. Without dismantling the system that brought us George Bush and that nurtured him, we’re doomed to see another like him. Or worse. Without ripping up the road he set us on, we will assuredly go down it again.

Yet, no one is talking about how to address these issues. I have hope that the next president can make a positive impact here, but he won’t if no one asks it of him. We need to make them go on record and take a stand.

This frustration got me imagining what questions I’d like to see the candidates answer. Issues that really matter to the continued operation of our society. Inquiries into the candidates’ perspectives on government itself. And a few I just thought would just be cool. At their best, they’d be questions that can’t be sidestepped and that clearly divide a heroic candidate from one doing business as usual. So, here’s my dream debate. To the best of my knowledge neither candidate has clearly defined a position yet on any of these.

20 Questions for the presidential applicant:

1. What – if anything - will you do as president to undo what many have called “the imperial presidency”? Will you voluntarily give up any of the contested powers that the Bush White House has claimed for itself (such as the authority to define torture, to withhold most testimony and evidence from congress, and to do pretty much whatever it likes “in a time of war”)?

2. Do you plan to continue the use of mercenary armies like Blackwater as adjuncts to our military? Should the same laws that apply to our troops apply to them?

3. It appears to many that the president is, in practical terms, above the law: that a White House can break any law it likes simply by covering it up, denying the facts, and refusing to go on the record. Is this true? If not, what can be done to deal with this perception?

4. Many have alleged that members of the Bush White House have acted illegally in various arenas. Given a widespread perception that these allegations may be true, how important is it to America to have open and fair investigations of these allegations? If crimes have been committed, is it healthier for our democracy to forget about it and "move on", or for illegal acts to be exposed and the criminals punished?

5. The last two presidential elections have been stained by serious allegations of voter fraud that have convinced many Americans that the process is rigged. What can you do to increase election integrity and voter confidence?

6. Former Bush White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, among others, has described the current administration as having a continuous “campaign mentality” and blamed this for the administration’s policy of misinformation. How can we keep politics and government as separate as possible?

7. President Bush recently used his powers to overrule the judicial system and commute the sentence of a friend of his: Scooter Libby. What is the proper use of the pardon power and how will you employ it?

8. What is your opinion of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war? Isn’t there a danger if other nations follow our lead?

9. Our economy is based on growth, which implies the extraction of resources and the making and buying of things. Thus it has historically come at the expense of deforestation, pollution, despeciation, and other environmental damage and resource depletion. Is there a limit to how much we can or should grow? If so, what can you do to make sure we sense and respect this limit?

10. As I understand it, we, the public, own the airways used by all the major networks and we have granted a license to them in exchange for public services such as educational and news programming. But, today, networks motivated by the bottom line are increasingly providing “infotainment” and downsizing their ability to produce information. Given the importance of real information in a true democracy, what is the standard for a news organization to hold up their responsibility and how can it be enforced?

11. How will you help the American people stay informed about the issues that will impact them, even when those issues aren’t flashy enough to get big ratings on the networks? Will you wholeheartedly support public broadcasting? Willl you take and answer tough questions from the public? Will you publish information on the internet for the public?

12. You will very likely have the chance to nominate a justice to the Supreme Court during your presidency, as well as many lower court judges. You will have to choose between many brilliant, honest, qualified people who differ in their beliefs about what the constitution means, so you will doubtless select one who you think has it right. What legal stances will be important to you in making this decision?

13. Should corporations – who are essentially immortal profit-making machines -- enjoy all the constitutional rights of people? Should they retain their rights even when they are harmful to the rest of society (like those who engage in environmental destruction) or unpatriotic (like those sending jobs overseas) or immoral (like those that support repressive governments)? Will you support the “death penalty” (revocations of charters) for corporations who’s acts violate the law or shock the conscience?

14. How can we ensure that the interests of the majority of Americans will be advanced by our government rather than those of special interests with large wallets? How can our voices be heard over those of corporate lobbyists?

15. When people working as government officials commonly leave for a high paying job in the industry they were supposedly regulating, how can we be confident that they had the public interests first in mind during their tenure? Is the relationship between Washington and corporate America too close? What can we do about it?

16. Are you grateful or annoyed at those who point out the flaws in our government and the mistakes in our past? Specifically, how will you deal with whistle-blowers in your government who disclose embarrassing information in hopes of drawing attention to a systemic problem they see?

17. How will you ensure that your White House does not engage in groupthink. That is, how do you make sure dissenting or unpopular opinions will still be voiced.

18. Define “supporting the troops”. Does it necessarily mean favoring the war they are sent to fight?

19. How much you trust science as an institution? On what issues might you trust your “gut” over accepted scientific fact? Will you, for example, question the findings of the overwhelming majority of climatologists who say that the earth is warming due to human action?

20. Does the public have a right to know what goes on in the White House? How far does executive privilege extend, in your opinion?

Wouldn’t it be sad if we elect a president without knowing their answers to any of these?
What questions would you add? How else can we get people to think more systemically?
If you’re inclined, get these questions out there – forward them to anyone who’d be interested. Maybe somebody will read one and ask it at a “Town Hall Meeting” somewhere.


Blogger TDEC said...

Question 13 in particular puts into words some of the big questions I have, and I'll certainly prod the nearest, ehm, prospective politician.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 5:37:00 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

My boyfriend linked to this post with a comment about how brilliant he found it, so I thought I'd try to defend my candidate of choice (Obama). Where I could, I pulled relevant statements from his website to at least illustrate the ideals relevant to the question, if not a direct answer.

1) Curtailing executive powers - I don't see anything directly applicable to this one, but there is quite a bit about ethics and promises to make the executive branch more transparent, which would prevent a lot of the abuses in the Bush administration.

2) Mercenaries - I'm assuming these count as "military contractors", which means the contract reform section is relevant:

3) White house under the law - Obama is certainly pledging to keep his administration transparent. This doesn't address how to restore people's faith in the white house, but perhaps the answer is "by setting a good example". Personally, I think the Bush administration should face impeachment charges, but for some reason Congress isn't willing to go forward with that.

4) move on vs. punish criminal activity... I haven't seen anything to address this one.

5) voting fraud - "Obama will sign into law his legislation that establishes harsh penalties for those who have engaged in voter fraud and provides voters who have been misinformed with accurate and full information so they can vote." from

6) separation of politics and government - can't address this, not sure it's even possible.

7) pardon power - can't address this either

8) doctrine of pre-emptive war - sorry...

9) restricting economic growth to protect environment - I haven't found anything to address this directly, but here's a nice quote referencing the problem, "Barack Obama has worked to ensure that our nation's environmental laws and policies balance America's need for a healthy, sustainable environment with economic growth." He has a whole host of solutions to pressing environmental problems, but I think Drek's question as asked is a bit simplistic. Environment and economic growth are not direct trade-offs, and so we have an agency for monitoring the environment (EPA), and they can put checks on economic growth when it causes problems, but not just for the hell of it.

10) ethics in the media - somewhat tangential, but may get around part of the underlying problem: ah, and I found a more directly applicable section (under diversity in media):

11) general government transparency - see above

12) appointing justices - huh, I'm kind of surprised this isn't addressed on the website. I mean, he's a professor of constitutional law after all:

13) corporations - meh?

14) majority vs lobbyists - dude, that's one of his campaigns biggest selling points (he refuses to take contributions from lobbyists and PACs)

15) officials becoming lobbyists - "Close the Revolving Door on Former and Future Employers: No political appointees in an Obama administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration." (from the ethics page)

16) whistleblowers - dunno.

17) listening to dissent - pretty sure this goes along with the transparency and opening decisions for public review, but otherwise I can't address it.

18) supporting the troops - oh please, have you listened to _any_ of Obama's speeches about the Iraq war?

19) science - see "Invest in the sciences" I'm pretty sure there's also a bit in the environmental section about returning the EPA to science-based decision making, but I'm getting too tired to track it down for you.

20) executive privilege - from the Ethics page it is pretty clear that Obama philosophically supports transparency. As for the definitive bounds of executive privilege? Not sure.

Okay, I'm tired, but I did my best. Hope this is useful somehow...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008 3:48:00 PM  

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